The Science(?) of Bio-Dynamics with Tom Mansell

Over on The New York Cork Report science writer Tom Mansell has had the idea to inject a little hands on science into the ongoing internet debate over biodynamics in the vineyard. For the next few weeks Tom will be taking the writings of both Rudolph Steiner and Nicolas Joly and visiting vineyards, conducting experiments and talking to vignerons to see what is working and perhaps get at the why. i thought this the best idea i’ve heard in a while regarding the subject and i decided to interview him. Enjoy!

1. First off some introduction, who are you and what are your qualifications for undertaking this project?

I’m a PhD student in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Cornell.
I have been writing about the science of wine for over a year and a
half now, starting with my own wine blog, Ithacork
(http://ithacork.com), and eventually landing a gig as the Science
Editor at the New York Cork Report about a year ago.

As for my qualifications, I rely on the scientific literature to back
up any statements I make. As a scientist myself, I critically
evaluate evidence and come up with a conclusion. Facts are my
authority.

2. What made you decide to take on this topic?

My first tour of a vineyard that is currently moving towards Demeter
certification was a huge motivator. I heard some things on that tour
that were PROFOUNDLY unscientific. I had heard of BioD before, but
passing around the horn manure (and observing others’ reactions)
really convinced me that people actually believed in this stuff.

I had been considering writing some things on this for a long time
when Lenn approached me about writing a series of pieces on the
science of biodynamics for the NYCR. The NYCR has a much larger
audience that includes lots of people in the wine trade, so it’s a
better medium for me.

3. It seems talking biodynamics is a surefire way to get people angry on both sides. How are you expecting to defuse this?

People are very polarized on the subject. The more rationally-minded
tend to write off every element of biodynamics as spiritual and
astrological mumbo-jumbo without considering that some practices may
in fact have merit, in spite of the reasoning given by Steiner et al.
On the other hand, BioD defenders use some language that flies in the
face of modern science, yet want to be taken seriously. And it seems
to them that every farmer who is not biodynamic is part of the machine
of industrial agriculture. As with all things, there’s got to be a
middle ground between these extreme viewpoints. That’s what I seek to
discover.

I haven’t really even written anything yet (just stated some facts
about labeling, etc.) and already there is a full-blown debate in the
comments section of the first article. It’s clearly touched a nerve.
Given the sensitive nature of the subject, I have to make sure my
facts are right.

4. You’ve read both Steiner and Joly (and I’m assuming some Demeter literature). what is your impression that you get from the readings?

Their tone is very anti-establishment, anti-science. They appeal to a
sense of nostalgia (i.e., back before we had industrial farming,
things were better, etc.). I have to say I was surprised by the overt
amount of astrology and spiritual language that dominates the texts,
especially with Joly writing in the present day.

They write with authority, yet their only references to observable
phenomena are purposely vague at worst or pseudoscientific at best.
Maria Thun, creator of the biodynamic calendar, does provide some data
about crops harvests on root, fruit, leaf, flower days, etc. but does
I have not seen any quantitative data about grapes from her yet. I’m
in the process of reading some of her works more closely.

5. How are you going to go about the study?

The same way I go about writing any piece. Research, research,
research. I’ve got primary sources in the form of Steiner, Joly,
Thun, etc. and I have access to scientific literature as well. As I
said, my job is really to synthesize the ideas already out there and
come to some sort of conclusion. In this case, to evaluate the
gravitational effect of the moon on, say, racking, you can do that
math. We know the mass of the moon and its gravitational effects on
water in the form of tides. Do “tides” happen in wine barrels?
Probably not.

6. A lot of folks claim that bio-dynamics works merely because it puts people in the field/vineyard more, and that positive results are merely a reflection of this. What do you say about this, or is it still too early to comment?

I used to hold this idea, too. It’s perfectly possible that this
quasi-placebo effect may improve some vineyards. However, I believe
that when we start getting away from observable phenomena and real
science and delve into the spitirual and unscientific, it hurts
everyone, from growers to winemakers to consumers. My intent here is
not to influence vineyard management policy or to change minds. My
overall intent is to educate consumers and to get people to think more
critically about what they’re drinking.

7. Which winemakers/farmers (I don’t know if you are going to talk to Bio-D people outside of wine) are you going to be talking with? Will you provide some time for skeptics as well?

In general I will focus on wine personalities, and since it’s the New
York Cork Report, I will be talking to some New York growers and
scientists. There are organic (or “as organic as possible”) producers
in both Long Island and the Finger Lakes (my home base), so I’d like
to talk to them about some of the challenges of organic/biodynamic
farming. I think organic has to be a part of this discussion as well.

8. I assume you’re familiar with the Biodynamics is a Hoax website that Stuart Smith has put up. What do you think about it? Do you think it has helped the debate?

I think the site is great. Mr. Smith takes a rational approach to
thinking about the problem, which I love, but his tone is
exceptionally confrontational. I mean, it’s right there in the title.
However, I think this leads people to think that he has come to this
conclusion without fully considering the facts (in spite of the blog
being a work in progress) and puts people off his arguments in an ad
hominem way. It’s a classic logical fallacy to say that just because
a person may have an agenda that the arguments he presents are not
true.

But speaking of the confrontational, Steiner et al. really started the
fight with their anti-modern science rhetoric.

The posts in the series will go up on
Thursdays on the NYCR for the next several weeks:

http://www.lenndevours.com/

~ by Cory Cartwright on August 16, 2010.

19 Responses to “The Science(?) of Bio-Dynamics with Tom Mansell”

  1. This is going to be really fun to follow. Tom is a wine/science geek of the highest order! Great interview.

  2. Very interesting. I look forward to reading future posts. In the meantime, I’ve forwarded the above text to two French vignerons who practice biodynamics — without the Joly religiosity. If Mr. Mansell ever comes to France, I’d be happy to introduce him to a lot of vintners who practice biodynamics without sermonizing and who make great wine, vintage after vintage. I’ve known Joly since 1989 and have always been disappointed in his wines — the Coulee de Serrant should always rival Le Montrachet — and turned off by his apocalyptic perorations.

  3. Thanks for the interview. I hope it’s going to be a good series, but the comments on the first post don’t fill me with confidence that anyone’s in the mood to learn anything, on either side.

    I don’t think he understood your sixth question, though.

  4. Jacqueline:
    I would love to some of these vignerons. Undoubtedly they have experimented with which practices have an effect and which do not. It should be fascinating to find out.

    Thor:
    I was very surprised by the comments that my first post (again, relatively devoid of content) generated. I think there has been tension building on this issue in Long Island for a while now, so hopefully I haven’t touched off a major conflict.

    Also, re: question 6, I guess I was commenting on a possible corollary to Cory’s statement (i.e., it gets boots on the ground, so it can’t be all bad…) when he actually didn’t say it. The real answer is “I don’t know” at this point.

    • correction: I would love to *hear from* some of these vignerons.

    • Tom,

      The tension isn’t confined to New York, or California. It’s really just a conflict in winemaking in general right now, but I think this is the best way to approach it, rather than taking Stu Smith’s route, which is to be openly antagonistic towards the other side. I wish you all the luck and hope the tensions start dying down and people take an active interest in what you are saying. By the way I phrased question 6 poorly, but the gist was that it gets winemakers into the field more.

      – Cory

    • As Cory’s saying, the thing a lot of biodynamic skeptics think (I guess I’d count myself as one, though I can’t muster up outrage or even mild pique at anyone who decided to use it) is that the primary benefits are: 1) the transition from conventional farming to something with fewer chemical inputs, and 2) (here’s where question 6 comes in) the fact that whether any part of biodynamic agriculture works or not, the farmer must observe, think, and act in a way that requires a lot more time in the vineyard worrying about what’s going on, rather than just signing off on an order for a few gallons of a spray and so forth. That is to say, paying more attention than before.

      It’s an interesting thing to note that many people — again, I’d probably put myself in this category — who welcome more attention and even a form of micromanagement in the vineyard are repelled by its effects once the grapes enter the cellar. But that’s a bigger conflict and outside the scope of your project.

      I do wish you luck. Unfortunately, I also think that the most useful people in terms of showing you side-by-side trials are the quietest about their farming practices (the DRC model, for example), while the people who’ve swallowed one position or the other in its entirety are the ones who are most likely to trumpet their positions.

  5. I find myself drawn to Tom’s approach. I too recoil from the overtly spiritual/anti-science tendencies often associated with Biodynamics, but on the other hand recognise that something appears to work in terms of wine quality. Whether this is because the specific practices actually produce tangible benefits or a reflection simply of good care of the land, I simply do not know.
    Two points, not unrelated, interest me, however.
    The first is the appearance of some form of acceptance of the perfection of the biodynamic prescription and the lack of any readily apparent search for even better methods or materials.
    The second, building on the latter point, is the question whether, by utilising certain specifically native European preparation ingredients biodynamics effectively negates its proposition of a closed ecological system, and thereby undermines the rationale of a unique terroir. Are there indigenous plants of the different lands where vineyards grow that might have the same or even enhanced biological characteristics to improve the exposition of terroir?
    I appreciate your “do not know” candour, because I understand that this is such a frustrating truth to possess.

  6. There is something about biodynamics that has an effect in the vineyard i’ve experienced it firsthand; but then again I use the preps in ways which are not officially sanctioned by Demeter.

    I suspect there is something similar to quantum physics going on here. You know, the role and intentions of the observer, entangelment, strange synchronicities. Probably why it’s so hard to replicate results.

    Maybe i think this because i’m reading David Bohm right now. Then again, maybe it’s just humbug.

  7. This is a tough one to articulate, but here are some thoughts that I have been having on this:

    The physicality of the preps are unimportant; rather, it is the idea in them that has its effect. The preps are powerful “medicines” or remedies for plants, and their scope can be narrow (ridding an environment of pathogenetic fungi) or broad (enhancing ripening or photosynthesis). So much is dependent on the farmer and his or her intentions. The preps are a focusing point for those intentions.

    Dynamizing them or preparing a homeopathic potency are just focusing tools. The real work is done in the realm of possibilities. Research a bit into quantum entanglement and the role of the observer and one comes to see that anything can happen, given the right circumstances. The main job of the farmer, as I see it, is to set up the farm with the greatest chances for the best possible outcome.

    Sorry if this makes little sense – its late and I’m tired after a hard day in the vines trying to exclude my feathered friends from my grape clusters.

  8. I have heard from one vigneron, Alain Hasard in Burgundy. I will post part of his reply here and put the entirety on my own website. Be warned, it’s in French. But then I sent him Tom’s text in English.
    Je ne maitrise pas suffisamment bien l’anglais pour comprendre toutes les subtilités du texte. Mais, j’ai tout de même l’impression qu’il fait part de son opinion plutôt qu’il n’apporte de véritables informations.

    Simplement, il prend la science comme le seul modèle valable pour comprendre et appréhender le monde. C’est un scientifique, et il a été formaté pour penser comme cela. Cette perspective, ce genre de personne n’est pas prêt à la remettre en cause. Pourtant au regard de l’histoire de l’humanité, la Science moderne ne représente qu’un phénomène très récent, et d’origine essentiellement occidentale. Nombre d’autres cultures dans l’espace et dans le temps ont cherché à appréhender le monde grâce à d’autres grilles conceptuelles, notamment à travers les mythes, l’empirisme et les traditions orales.
    ……….Il ne faut pas s’y tromper, le débat est majeur. Aussi est-il important de bien comprendre de quoi on parle. La différence entre les deux méthodes est fondamentale, elle va bien au-delà de quelques considérations ou railleries à propos des marées dans une barrique.

    • Allow me to translate this:

      I am not master enough of english to understand all the subtleties of this text. But, I have the impression that he is giving his opinion rather than presenting real facts.

      He takes science simple as the only valid model for understanding the world. He’s a scientist, and he has been trained to think that way. That perspective, this type of person is not ready to discuss these issues. However in regards to the history of humanity, modern science represents only a very recent phenomenon, and originated essentially in western thought. Many other cultures have sought to understand the world with other conceptual modes, notably straight from myths, empiricism, and oral traditions.

      Don’t mistake it, the debate is significant. It’s important to understand well what we’re talking about. The difference between the two methods is fundamental, it goes well beyond making fun of tides inside barrels.

      • I hope I translated that accurately. It seems pretty inflammatory to me! If anyone has any corrections, please note them.

        He does have a point though. Science is not the end all and be all for me. Yes, it has given us advances but it has set us back in many other ways. All you have to do to discover that is read Michael Pollan’s stuff.

        As far as oral traditions go, that was one thing that always bothered me about Bio-D. I didn’t understand how it could be such an old world, passed down tradition, if Rudolf steiner thought it up so recently. But then recently, I got my answer while talking to a natural winemaker, Gilles Vergé in Viré Clessé.

        What he told me is that he went back and read Steiner, but also read the original writings of the Cluny monks, who he said were really the originators of Bio-d. He said Steiner just wrote down some of what they had said and other things that had been passed down orally. He also said he didn’t think it was enough to blindly follow what Steiner said, that one really needed to go back to the original works to form ones own system. He even mentioned that some of the “bio-d” methods he used were passed down from his grandfather, and not from Steiner or any other written model.

        I don’t know much about the Cluny monks, but it seems to me that monks in general way back when were pretty darn scientific, and got a lot of things right. Like the terroirs in Burgundy. It would be great, Tom, if you could ahold of some of that stuff. But I don’t know if any is available in English.

      • Thanks for the translation, Nick.

        I read the full reply on your website, Jacqueline. Thanks for posting it.

        M. Hasard makes some interesting points, but seems to confuse “science” for “technology”. If we do not understand the world via observable phenomena and evidence, then how?

        I wouldn’t say his response is inflammatory (it gets much more level-headed in the middle in spite of violating Godwin’s law). However, he does sound like one always on the defensive, and perhaps rightfully so. He admits that some practitioners have abused the spirit of biodynamics by adopting “ridiculous” practices involving Saturn, Pluto, etc. Perhaps he feels that these producers distract skeptics from those who are doing real work to produce grapes and wine in a way that respects the farm as an ecosystem. If that is the case, then I agree, and perhaps the existence of practices that have no basis in reality hurts growers like M. Hasard.

        I have no issue with sustainable viticulture and M. Hasard’s intentions of building a farm ecosystem and eschewing harsh chemical herbicides are certainly noble and commendable. I imagine that the development of the system he uses today came about by observing what was working in the vineyard and what wasn’t.

        However, if the prevailing notion among biodynamic grapegrowers is that the position of Pluto in the sky affects crops or that the gravitational pull of the moon affects sedimentation on more than an infinitesimal level, then perhaps I am indeed not ready for the “challenge.”

  9. I think the real question that needs to be answered is what does Thomas Matthews think of Biodynamics.

  10. […] also been interviewed about this project for the popular wine blog saignée, and that interview has also generated significant […]

  11. Tom and ngorevic, thanks for meeting Hasard’s comments head on. Tom, Hasard’s approach is similar to that of many vintners practicing biodynamics in France. They don’t make headlines or position themselves as evangelists. My good friend, Guy Bossard, having farmed organically since 1972 began converting his vineyards to biodynamic famring in the late ’80s. He’s also a nurseryman and a perfectionist in the cellar. For your study I think it would be more revealing to talk to people like Alain and Guy than to parse the words of Joly. I like the reference to the monks of Cluny. When I was living in a small farming village west of Chinon I was advised,for example, to sow my parsley seeds when the moon was waxing. My current neighbor, a professional gardner, chuckles when I say this but he can never raise parsley from seed and my parsley never fails. Ok, that example was somewhat reductionist but it does show that these thoughts/theories go back before Rudolph Steiner. I guess my point is, Tom, that you should speak with vintners like Guy and Alain — on their own turf — in order to really bring something new and more profound to this debate.

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